Velodyne's contribution to the self-driving-future:
Autonomous driving is all about road data and mapping. One of the kings in registering all this input is Velodyne, a tech company based in Silicon Valley (where else?). Velodyne won't soon come out with an own Velodyne self-driving car, but will most probably deliver one of the most important parts. The company made a name for itself in the 80’s with the R&D of high end speakers, headphone and subwoofers. Though driverless cars may benefit from a nice pair of woofers, Velodyne has been offering another kind product to the sector that has been of major influence: Lidar.
Lidar is a surveying technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser light .The laser light functions as a radar, rotating 360 degrees at high speed, building a constantly changing high-resolution 3D map around itself (light + radar = Lidar). The technology is used in an immeasurable amount of airborne and terrestrial vehicles and applications such as military vehicles, drones, robots, space scanners and … driverless cars.
Lidar vs Mobileye
It feels like re-watching the DVD vs Blu-ray conflict, following two completely different technologies fighting to become the standard application in the first fleets of self-driving cars. Mobileye is Blu-ray, the newcomer with the fresh idea, more cost-efficient; using a high dynamic range CMOS camera sensor to detect surrounding objects and possible incoming threats. Lidar is DVD, the older technology, trustworthy but drawn-out and expensive (for example radars used for years in military equipment) looking for improvements and application shifts.
Just like in the DVD vs Blu-ray conflict, all stakeholder have to choose a camp. Most car manufacturers are supporting Mobileye. Tesla, GM, Audi, BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, Nissan, Renault, etc. have all introduced the technology in their test cars and driverless prototypes. But not all. Ford and Volvo for example have chosen to set forth Lidar-technology in their race to driverless. Also supporting camp Velodyne are Google and Baidu. Other followers are TomTom and Here.
Present and Future
Google, Baidu and Volvo are using Velodyne’s HDL-64E LiDAR- model. The device is mounted to the roof of their cars car and rotates at 10 revolutions per second, using 64 laser beams to scan the surroundings in incredible detail, registering 2.2 million points per second. But as opponents like Mobileye like to preach, this amount of detailed data comes at a price. Google for example bought their HDL-64Es at around $80,000 per unit.
But Velodyne’s newest gadget is silencing the naysayers. Their Solid-State Hybrid Ultra Puck saw the light in January 2016 and will be the first affordable ADAS sensor capable of supporting ADAS levels 1-4/5, including fully autonomous driving. Affordable definitely yes, as Velodyne sets a target pricing of less than $500 per unit and specifications that are equal or better than its predecessors’. The first order came from Ford, which will be building out a fleet of 30 self-driving test cars, implementing Velodyne’s newest technology. Maybe in the future there will be room for an own Velodyne self-driving car, but no such news has been released just yet.